Picture this: You’re sound asleep when you’re jolted awake by smoke, flames, and blaring smoke detectors. The scariest part? You and your family have less than two minutes to get out before smoke/flames engulf the building.
With so little time to think or act in the moment, it’s vital to prepare yourself with fire safety education. While we hope this scary scenario won’t ever happen to you, it could. In fact, a home fire occurs every 86 seconds in America and fires destroy almost half a million structures every year. To protect yourself, home, and loved ones, follow the fire safety guide below, so you’re prepared for the worst.
What to do in a fire
1. Plan an escape route.
Emergency escape plans save lives. Do you have one for your home? First, start by drawing a map of your home including windows, doors, and hallways. Identify main emergency exits like the front and back door. Come up with a primary emergency escape route and then contingency routes to follow if one way is blocked. Remember, in an actual fire, flames and smoke can make certain passageways impassable, so it’s important you think this through when planning an escape route. For instance, if you have upper floor bedrooms, you can buy fire ladders that unravel to help people escape quickly.
Once your fire escape plan is ironed out, have a fire drill. Again, use different scenarios to achieve better preparedness. For starters, have everyone lie in their beds to simulate a night fire. Then, practice escaping from common areas like the kitchen and living room. Also, consider the fact that smoke can decrease visibility significantly. Have a fire drill in complete darkness or with everyone’s eyes closed. Practice counting doors and sensing your whereabouts by touch instead of sight. The more practice you have in more scenarios, the better prepared everyone will be in an actual emergency.
2. Extinguish the fire if you can.
If a fire starts in your home, call the fire department immediately while also assessing if you can put the blaze out yourself. This is hard to advise on because the call will be up to you. However, as long as professional help is on its way, you could attempt to use a fire extinguisher to put out small flames, so they don’t flash into 5-alarm fires. Go with your gut here though. If there’s too much smoke and a lot of heat, get yourself to safety.
3. Rescue humans and pets first, belongings second.
In an actual fire, the only non replaceable items are those that are living. Resist the urge to grab your laptop or jewelry. Instead, attend to family members and pets first. Rank them in order of who needs the most help (ie. a baby or disabled family member).
If there’s enough time, you can gather important documents like your driver’s license, birth certificate, marriage or divorce certificates, and photo albums. If there isn’t, forget about it. Preserving life is much more important than saving electronics or personal effects.
4. Stop, drop, and crawl.
Often times in fires, smoke and heat are more dangerous than the flames themselves. House fires can cause areas near the ground to reach 100 degrees or more and up to 600 degrees near ceilings. If there’s heavy smoke, drop to the floor where the air is cleaner and crawl to the nearest exit. Keep a piece of clothing or a towel over your nose to filter out the smoke and prevent yourself from passing out. Smoke rises, so more breathable air will be low to the ground.
5. Never take the elevator.
You should cover this in your fire escape plan, but let us reiterate: never take an elevator during a fire! You could become trapped or suffer a fall if the elevator fails or gives out. Always use the stairs or fire escape instead of an elevator.
6. Test doorknobs.
In an actual fire, you shouldn’t walk into any room without touching the doorknobs first. If there is heat, it’s probably not safe to enter. Opening doors can also increase airflow and accelerate the rate in which fire spreads.
7. Don’t panic.
Panicking can cloud your brain and prevent you from thinking clearly. If you’re trapped in a room during a fire, take a deep breath and remember this:
Close the door and plug up any cracks or vents with a blanket, clothes, or a towel to keep the smoke out.
Call 911 if you have a phone to let the authorities know where you are in the building.
If you don’t have a phone, yell for help.
If there’s a window, hang a piece of clothing or a cloth out the window to alert emergency crews.
Fires are undoubtedly terrifying, but keeping a clear head can keep you safer. Even if you’re not trapped, you should always take a second to calm yourself and think rationally about the proper steps to get everyone out safely.
8. Get out and stay out.
Once everyone in your family is out of your house, stay out. Don’t go back inside for anything—it’s too dangerous! The firefighters will be able to go back inside to save anything they can. That’s what they train for and they have gear to protect themselves. Also, remember to stay back 75 feet or more. Explosions are uncommon but could cause you to become injured if you’re too close.
How to prevent a fire
Now that you know what to do in an actual fire, you should know how to prevent one from happening. Here are some top tips:
Install fire alarms and smoke detectors. Early warning systems can help you get control of a fire before it spirals out of control. Smoke detectors can also help you get out safely. Install a smoke alarm on every level and in every room of your home, and test each alarm once a month to make sure it’s working.
Always keep matches and lighters out of the reach of children.
Keep flammable items at least three feet away from anything hot. (e.g., fireplaces, space heaters, and ovens).
Only smoke outside.
Stay in the kitchen. When you’re cooking, always stay nearbyin case something catches fire.
Turn off appliances. Remember to shut off your stove when you’re done cooking.
Extinguish controlled fires completely. This includes fireplace fires and those in fire pits in the backyard.
Spray down surrounding areas before having an outdoor fire. If you live in a dry climate, don’t start a fire outdoors. If you do, make sure to spray down the surrounding area in case a spark lands outside of your fire pit.
Here are some fire safety products that may be helpful to have on hand during a fire or to prevent one from getting out of hand:
Fire Extinguishers. Store a fire extinguisher in your kitchen and on each level of your home, near bedrooms. Find SafeWise’s top fire extinguisher picks here.
Fire Blanket. Use a fire-retardant blanket to extinguish a small fire by smothering it before it has a chance to get any bigger.
Smoke Detectors. Compare top smoke detectors in our buyer’s guide.
Home Fire Sprinklers. Automatic home fire sprinklers, once activated, can help greatly reduce flames and heat, often long before the fire department can get to your home. You can search for companies near you that can install sprinkler systems in your home.
A Fire Escape Ladder. If you live in a building with more than one level, fire escape ladders can help you quickly and safely escape out a window.
The most important step you can take to protect yourself and your family is to prevent a fire from happening. However, if one does break out, stay calm, get everyone out, and call for help immediately. After all, almost anything can be replaced except for your life.
Katherine has had several years of experience developing and executing multichannel marketing campaigns, but actually started her career path in journalism. Though she switched gears, she continues to be driven by the need to deliver information that can be helpful for individuals. As an owner of two rescue dogs, she is most interested in technology and products that allow her to keep a close eye on her pets when she’s away. Learn more